Most people think internal racism describes instances where, for example, Mexicans don’t like other Mexicans. (An example that is not true.) That’s a common misunderstanding of the concept. The notion of internal racism describes the resentment, dislike, and maybe even disgust with one’s own ethnicity, a self-hatred at its extreme.
Being biracial can be fertile ground for this type of insecurity and revulsion with one’s identity. Negative external messaging has its effect on everyone, but when it comes from two different and often opposing sides, it doubles the bombardment. It’s a constant ping pong between two worlds, neither of which you are considered being a full-fledged member. The space we as Biracial people inhabit is like a lonely, often humiliating purgatory between the two.
In 2020, most people have heard of the idea that race is a social construct. Well, it is! It was a method from the 16th and 17th centuries to categorize people based on shade of skin color and physical characteristics. Into the 18th century the white scientists studying these variations attributed negative connotations to particular differences among darker “races”, or colors of flesh.
It was an attempt to sort people relegating those who were not white to a separate, often lower, species. Thinking like that has become ingrained in our society and is the basis for implicit bias. It’s why my mother taught me from a very young age to use the word “ethnicity” rather than the word “race” which masquerades around as a scientific term.
Even within the biracial community there is a type of social sorting. If someone is half black and half white, the world often sees them and refers to them as black. They are more able to identify as people of color because of the preconceived classification of their skin tone. But that doesn’t happen if your “darker” half doesn’t show up in your skin. Being a light-skinned biracial Latina is isolating, disorienting, and for a long time a journey of wandering around looking for a home. There was no world in which I felt I belonged.
The Latino community has done a tip-top job of informing me since I could walk that my light skin set me apart from them. Intentional or not, they slipped me into a lesser category, a watered-down version of a Latina. As I got older, they explained to me that my pale skin afforded me a privilege to “pass” as white thanks to my Italian American father being blond with blue eyes. To me, passing was a curse, a penalty for not being full-blooded. It was also an inaccurate assumption that it provided me some passport to travel in and out of the vastly different worlds of white people and Latinos.
However, I fully understand that the world’s perception and assumption that I am a white woman has given me more safety in my agency, especially in this country. But the truth is I was never accepted outright by white people simply because I have light skin. My parents labeled me as Latina when they baptized me with a four-word name, holding tight to my mother’s Guatemalan tradition. It was a source of mocking when I was a child and eventually lead me to use only my father’s last name until I was an adult. The names acted as a neon sign, flashing to the White world that I’m not quite one of them. It caused them to take notice that my hair is coarse and frizzy, and I pronounce certain words the way my mother did, with a Spanish accent.
According to my unyielding school tormentors, I was half “watermelon”, a description bestowed on me when pronouncing “Guatemalan” proved to be too difficult. Mamá’s reaction to this childish name calling was to tell me to ignore it. She had the skill to endure, survive, and choose her battles, all borne out of being a deaf immigrant. Coming to the United States as a teenager from a country torn by civil war, unable to speak the language and as a person with a disability, immature name calling didn’t even make her flinch.
As a child, I saw the things that truly scared her, instances where her face was awash with the fear instilled by racism and her experience as an immigrant. Her back would stiffen, and her face would become tense as we waited in line at the US border attempting to drive back into San Diego after taking a family trip to Ensenada, Mexico in our old Chevy suburban. My brother and I would be in the back seat and she would turn around from the passenger side just before we got to the checkpoint, “You two don’t say a word. Let your dad do the talking. You behave and if they ask you any questions answer them clearly. You tell them you are American citizens.” At the time I thought it was about us not bickering in front of strangers or embarrassing our parents by being inarticulate or disrespectful. Later I would find out it was a visceral terror she wouldn’t be let back into the country with us, that her green-card would be revoked or falsely labeled a forgery. Neither our light skin, nor her Italian-American husband afforded her any privilege in that moment.
When our home was assaulted, spray painted with black swastikas in the middle of the night by the local group of skinheads, I didn’t feel “privileged”. In fact, my dad’s white skin was exactly why we were singled out. They saw him as a traitor, an abomination because of his interracial marriage and for bringing “half-breeds” into the world.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Ca, as a scholarship-kid in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the country, I remember Montecito well-to-dos scolding me for letting my “nanny” kiss me. I was far too young to understand they thought my mother was the hired help, and therefore out of bounds hugging and being so affectionate towards me. Occasionally a stranger at the grocery store, after deciding they were entitled to know, would ask if I was adopted. I never found this question as humorous as my mother did. Why was it funny that I was not dark enough to be a real Latina, her little Latina? My light complexion and lean build made little sense when I called the Mayan-looking woman, Mama. How could she have given birth to me who looked so… well…white?
At 6-years-old I told my mother I wanted to change my name to Sandy after watching the movie Grease too many times to count. I saw the conventional beauty of the blonde Olivia Newton-John as she rose to popularity and acceptance, while “Cha Cha” and her coppery skinned were the antithesis. 2 years into elementary school and I had already learned which of the two was preferable to be. I naively believed if I became like the whitest, most “American-looking” girl I’d seen on TV, with a matching name that wasn’t “ethnic”, people would stop making fun of me. My hair would not be so long and dark. My face wouldn’t be so oval with big teeth and too many freckles. That was internal racism.
The odd part of being seen and treated as different was that many of my friends were Mexican Latinos. Some even had one white parent. So, why was my ethnic mix so odd? The answer to that existential question would not be revealed until much later in my life. I was not only biracial; I was bi-cultural. Most of my friends’ Latino parents had been in the United States for generations. Other than their blood and skin color, they were American. I straddled not only two ethnicities, but two cultures, two ways of being seen by the outside world.
This shame was especially projected onto me when I got to college, surrounded by friends who were San Francisco natives identifying as Chicano, Peruvian, Aztec, and parts of the Latino diaspora I didn’t know existed. They dictated to me that because of my skin color I never experienced racism or discrimination, even dismissing my stories as probable misinterpretations of hazy childhood memories. Recently, my 4-year-old Mexican niece with deep chocolate skin wore a t-shirt as she marched alongside her mother at a protest against police brutality that said, “Brown Girls Can Do Anything!” If I wore that shirt, I’d be labeled a racist or cultural appropriator. I’d have to prove I am a full-fledged member of the Latina club. It’s as if I walk the earth using a visitor’s pass, waiting for a spot to open, one that for me doesn’t actually exist.
The truth is a lot of the discrimination I experienced came from “inside the house”, from other Latinos. I was told repeatedly that my shade of Latina would never allow me to know what it really meant to be a brown person in this country. Respecting their pain, the same pain I saw my mother endure, I refrained from speaking up for myself, of informing them I may not be brown outwardly, but I am very much so inside. I had no control over the pigment of my skin, much like they did not have a say in their own.
Being Biracial is like being an only child amongst friends with lots of siblings. I had to learn to exist in a world alone. To my Latino friends, I wasn’t fluent in Spanish and didn’t know as enough about my Guatemalan culture. Among my white friends, my name and the lunches I brought to school kept me from fitting in with them. So, off to my own world of misfits and half-breeds, I’d go. Under my parents’ roof I could be as much of either culture at any moment and feel no shame. On my birthday my mom sang me “Las Mañanitas”, and my dad blared “Birthday” by the Beatles. It was never “either/or”, but rather “both/and”.
Late last year I had one of the rare instances where I felt like I belonged somewhere. My husband and I took a trip down to Guatemala to see my family and be there for a medical procedure my young nephew was to undergo. I was one of them. I did not feel like “an American” because I was not treated like one. People somehow seemed to know I was a Chapina. Was it my hair? Was it the accent I used when speaking to them in my best Spanish? When my mom was with me it was obvious, they connected me to her. She gave me “street cred”. But when we separated and my husband and I were on our own in Antigua, my family’s city of origin, I didn’t have to prove my bona fides as a part of the tribe. I wasn’t traveling in their world as a stranger. It was my world too.
It made me realize that for me the marginalization of my identity as not being enough, Italian enough or Latino enough, was a uniquely American projection onto me. When I traveled to Spain, I wasn’t labeled as “white”, I was asked which Latin America country I came from given my accent when speaking Spanish. My skin color was never an issue. This realization broke my heart. The country I love, was born in, and give my blood, sweat, and tears to serve and change for the better, doesn’t necessarily feel the same way about me.
I’ve only recently given myself the permission to be personally offended by the things I see as a result of others’ white privilege, one of them being the ability to overlook Latinos as people. My entire life I have been infuriated on behalf of my Abuelo, and more so, my mother. It hurt me that anyone could look past her, see her as “the help” and discount her abilities based on her hearing aids and thick accent. While I hurt for her, I didn’t realize the same thing was happening to me. Only in my 30s have I begun talking about the price of admission I have paid to be accepted among mi gente. However, too often when I’ve attempted to redeem my ticket to enter the club, I have been told “¡PROHIBIDO EL PASO!”
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to put people at ease. Don’t act too Latina around white friends. Don’t act too “White” or “American” around Latino friends. Read their body language. Are they speaking Spanish to exclude me? Do they know I can understand what they are saying? They must not because I heard what they just called me. I too am a Latina, but an undercover one.
I fully understand and can even relate to our brains’ need to compartmentalize and categorize. But when we do so, we risk segregating solely by what is different, missing out on the similarities we share. Why should differences have more weight? We self-sort to our detriment, and for what? Because of a pseudo-science that has led to putting Latino children in cages, Muslims under surveillance, calling Asians dirty, and not allowing Black people to breathe?
I realize my wish for a world where we celebrate our differences is one of a child. Children are born with acceptance in their hearts but taught to hate. Hate isn’t just wearing calling someone a wetback. It’s also calling someone a güera or pocha. It is discounting the cooking skills of a sous chef because he is an undocumented immigrant, or missing the intellect of a deaf Guatemalan with several degrees because she still spells “leave” as “live”.
I believe hate is more ravaging in the form of implicit bias, especially within one’s own ethnicity. It’s a slow, wearing drop of water on a boulder, burrowing an irreparable hole over time. But our country isn’t a boulder, an inanimate object. The U.S. bases itself on a living, breathing constitution. That document can say whatever we want it to say. It can afford protections, equity, and inclusivity if we want it enough.
Wanting it enough must include the desire for that same equality for our own kind. As a person of color, it can be the hardest thing in the world to look at my own biases and the part I may have played, however small, in getting our country to this ugly place. We have all had a hand in it whether it be from being too passive when we see hate, or not grabbing a clipboard to register voters when the time came. Macklemore says, “I tweet about justice, but don’t show up to the march.” Words are good, but actions are God. You don’t have to be religious to understand that sentiment. God can just be a stand in for the words love, brotherhood, sisterhood, decency, or righteousness. It’s about being a good world citizen. If we all have had an influence in the negative aspects of our country, that means we all have the power to change it.
When I was getting my degree in Social Work and would tell my dad how overwhelmed I was feeling about the world’s racism and bigotry, he would look at me and through a chuckle say, “Baby, assholes come in every color,” as if that explained it all. Maybe it does.